Can Okra Help Control Your Hunger and Diabetes?

okra health benefits

Story at-a-glance -

  • Also called “ladyfingers,” okra is closely related to cotton and hibiscus and is a favorite vegetable in the American South and areas of Africa and the Mediterranean, with numerous ways to cook it to get valuable health benefits
  • Okra is one of the top purveyors of glutathione, which has anticarcinogenic and several other advantageous properties, and in glutathione content, it falls in the top four among all foods, behind asparagus, avocado and spinach
  • Okra may help to fight symptoms of diabetes due to its ability to lower blood sugar, fight stress and lower fatigue for improved health
  • Okra consumption may benefit diabetics due to several nutrients, including fiber, antioxidants, folate, potassium, calcium and vitamin K
  • Bulk fiber from eating okra has been shown to aid digestion by reducing your hunger cravings and keeping you feeling fuller, which is an important component for controlling diabetes symptoms

By Dr. Mercola

What vegetable looks like a cross between a jalapeno, a mini cucumber and a star fruit, has enjoyed a long Southern tradition and was recently found to provide some really incredible benefits for your health? If your answer was okra, you get a thumbs-up, and if you or someone you care about struggles with their blood sugar, not to mention bouts of hunger that only exacerbates their blood sugar woes, listen up.

But first, a little okra history: Also called "ladyfingers," and closely related to both cotton and hibiscus, okra comes in more than one variety, so it can be tinged with red and have either a smooth or a rough and even prickly texture.

A favorite in the American South and areas of Africa and the Mediterranean, where it's usually cooked to reveal a slimy texture, there are (fortunately) serving alternatives; five possibilities, with a few twists, are inspired by Smithsonian Magazine:1

  • Fried okra is the traditional Southern way of serving okra, involving corn meal and so-called "vegetable oils," but it's not the healthiest. If you choose to eat fried okra, at least be sure you use a healthy cooking oil (mentioned below), perhaps with a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese added, and cook it at a lower temperature.
  • Gumbo with okra2 for taste and as a thickening agent with the obligatory "holy trinity" of bell pepper, onion and celery is a Southern staple. In fact, the African name "gombo" is where the recipe was derived. It's often mixed with meat, tomatoes and bay leaves.
  • Pickled okra,3 especially the sweet and spicy variety, is another way to serve this little pod, often with dried chilies, black peppercorns, mustard seeds, hot peppers, vinegar, fresh dill, salt and rice wine vinegar.
  • Grilled or oven-roasted okra4 can be as simple as dousing clean, quartered okra pods with olive oil and sprinkling them with salt and pepper on a baking sheet, then cooking for 15 minutes. The best part: It's not slimy and actually becomes partially caramelized.
  • Stewed okra is a great way to add the nutrients but with stronger-flavored flavors, such as beef broth, lamb, balsamic vinegar, cloves, tomato paste, garlic, mint leaves and spices, like in the case of banya,5 an Egyptian meat and okra stew.

It should be noted that far healthier oils than the standard fare include coconut oil, avocado oil, organic grass fed raw butter, ghee and sesame oil, which are recommended when frying. Olive oil is good, but only at temperatures lower than 180 degrees F, as fumes emitted from cooking olive oils can potentially be carcinogenic; plus, the oil is easily damaged by high heat.

Study Shows Okra To Be a Viable Diabetes Fighter

An animal study conducted in 2014 revealed that okra extracts may help reduce oxidative stress and insulin resistance, and as a result, improve blood sugar levels.6 In another clinical study,7 roasted okra seeds, which people in Turkey have eaten for years to offset diabetes mellitus symptoms, were found to do just that.

Additionally, a large phytochemical analysis showed that okra seed extracts also had antistress (adaptogenic) and nootropic (cognitive enhancing) effects on volunteers.8 I also would like to remind anyone with high blood sugar tendencies that managing your ability to handle stress is an important factor in managing diabetes, as over the long term, elevated stress levels can take a toll on your ability to prevent spikes.

Diabetes.org observes that anything that triggers your fight-or-flight response can cause insulin to "pile up" in your blood.9 In the same vein, one reason listing the health advantages of okra consumption is so timely is that the instances of diabetes cases are steadily rising, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In 2014, it was reported, for instance, that while around 167,000 youth under age 20 had Type 1 diabetes in 2009, more than 18,000 new cases have been estimated for the same age demographic every year since then.10 Differences between the three types of diabetes (Type 1, Type 2 and gestational diabetes) and the problems each can cause are important to understand.

According to Medical News Today,11 the earlier reference to diabetes mellitus denotes a group of metabolic disorders that prevent your body from properly storing and using glucose, or blood sugar, as fuel; it can be because you don't produce enough insulin, your body's cells fail to respond properly to insulin, or both.

However, not just Type 1 diabetes (when your body fails to produce insulin) but Type 2 (when your body fails to produce enough insulin for proper function) and gestational diabetes (which affects pregnant women) are included in the kinds of diabetes that okra consumption may be able to help. While the research is said to still be in its early stages, okra has proven itself effective for diabetes sufferers.

Beneficial Nutrients in Okra and What They Can Do for You

Okra, aka Abelmoschus esculentus, a rather forgotten garden vegetable, provides a number of valuable nutrients, including fiber. Several of the most prominent of them must be obtained through food, and if you don't get enough of them, a deficiency can seriously compromise your health. Five of the most beneficial include:12

Potassium — A mineral as well as an electrolyte, meaning it conducts electrical impulses through your body, potassium helps normalize your muscle contractions, heart rhythm, blood pressure, digestion, pH balance and more. Because your body doesn't produce it, you must obtain an optimal amount of foods containing it, while making sure it balances your sodium intake.

Folate — One of several B vitamins, this one produces red blood cells and both makes and repairs your DNA, and a deficiency can lead to anemia, depriving your cells of oxygen. One of its most crucial functions is for pregnant women as it's involved with preventing birth defects.

Note: Although many people interchange them, do not confuse folate, which occurs naturally in foods, with folic acid, which is a synthetic form of vitamin B9 used as a supplement and an additive to processed foods.

Calcium — Stored in your bones, it works with vitamin D to ensure your body absorbs it properly to avoid brittle, prone-to-break bones. It also works with vitamin K2 to keep calcium from settling in areas it shouldn't be, such as your arteries and soft tissues, and directing it to where it should be, like your bones and teeth.

Vitamin K — A fat-soluble vitamin that plays critical roles in protecting your heart, building your bones, optimizing your insulin levels and helping your blood to clot properly, vitamin K can help prevent heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, multiple types of cancer and even Alzheimer's disease.

Vitamin C — This powerful antioxidant lessens both the duration and severity of a cold and is necessary to produce collagen, the most abundant protein in mammals, which keeps your skin and tissues firm but flexible. A "C" deficiency weakens your immune system and is infamously known for causing the sailor's dread: scurvy.

Okra Contains Fiber, Antioxidants and Compounds That Fight Fatigue

Mentioned earlier as one of the many benefits of eating okra, dietary fiber is so important for your overall well-being, it really can't be overstated. Consuming high-fiber foods like okra help the other foods you eat move smoothly through your system and provide the bulk required to eliminate waste from your system. Eight 3-inch-long okra pods provide around 3 grams of fiber.

In one study,13 researchers separated the skin and seeds of immature okra pods to compare their polysaccharides, polyphenols, flavonoids, quercetin and similar compounds, as well as their antioxidant and anti-fatigue activities. It's interesting to note that the scientists wrote that the fairly small doses given to mice in the study are easily obtainable simply by eating okra itself.

The seeds won; the scientists found significantly more anti-fatigue effects because of reduced blood lactic acid and urea nitrogen, which enhanced hepatic glycogen storage and promoted antioxidant ability by lowering the level of malondialdehyde (a marker for oxidative stress14) while increasing superoxide dismutase and glutathione peroxidase levels.

These results, according to the study, "proved okra seeds were the anti-fatigue part of okra pods and polyphenols and flavonoids were active constituents." Bulk fiber from eating okra has been shown to aid digestion by reducing your hunger cravings and keeping you feeling fuller, which is an important component for controlling diabetes symptoms.

Further, increasing your fiber intake is shown in clinical trials to encourage improved glycemic control and insulin sensitivity, and lower cardiovascular risk factors and chronic kidney disease in Type 2 diabetes patients.15 The Global Journal of Medical Research16 asserts more health benefits:

  • Okra's anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial action may help with digestive problems and irritable bowel syndrome
  • The seeds are a source of high-quality protein and can be ground and used as a noncaffeinated substitute for coffee
  • The mucilage in okra binds cholesterol and bile acids to aid the liver in carrying toxins out of the body, and even can be used as a plasma replacement or blood volume expander
  • Its polysaccharide content lowers cholesterol levels in the blood
  • It can help reduce asthma problems

In summary, the journal concludes:

"One of the better health advantages of consuming okra is definitely the powerful management of the body's high cholesterol level. This healthy vegetable is beneficial in slimming down and also reducing cholesterol … It is [also] a good vegetable for those feeling weak, exhausted and suffering from depression ... [additionally it can be] used for ulcers, lung inflammation [and] sore throat."

Glutathione in Okra: One of the Most Dramatic Compounds for Your Health

One of the most dramatically game-changing compounds in okra is glutathione, which one study acknowledges has anticarcinogenic properties. According to Immune Health Science,17 foods containing glutathione fall into two categories: those containing the glutathione molecule and those that promote glutathione production and/or "upload" the activity of glutathione enzymes in your body.

However, it must remain uncooked; cooking glutathione foods diminishes its content. Storage methods can affect it, too. One study shows that dietary glutathione intake can lower your risk of oral and pharyngeal cancer,18 while an animal study19 observed that it protects against diabetic nephropathy (damage to kidneys due to diabetes) and neuropathy (damage to nerves and eventual renal failure).20

But here's the kicker: Among all the foods listed as having the highest glutathione content, one study reflected the "Glutathione in foods listed in the National Cancer Institute's Health Habits and History Food Frequency Questionnaire,"21 ranking okra fourth in milligrams (mg) per a 100-gram (3.5-ounce) serving. According to Immune Health Science,22 here's the breakdown:

  • Asparagus — 28.3 mg
  • Avocado — 27.7 mg
  • Spinach — 11.4 mg
  • Okra — 11.3 mg

Forms of Okra: Water, Peel and Powdered Seeds

Whether or not you're aware of this "craze," okra water has become a thing. In fact, drinking Bhindi juice (another name for it) is said to impart several health advantages besides those already mentioned. How it's prepared, however, can make all the difference. Diabetes Self-Management offers this recipe for making okra water:23

"Take two to four small pods, cut off the tips, puncture or slice the sides and soak them overnight in 8 ounces of water. Then take the pods and squeeze the goop into a new cup and water to that."

Shredded okra peel is how this veggie has been used in traditional medicine. Simply use a grater, and just one-half of a teaspoon is enough to provide nutritional benefits. When looking for okra pods to try a few culinary forays, look for bright green, unblemished pods to ensure freshness, and smaller pods, which are tastier and more tender, but still firm.

Store okra without washing it first; a paper bag will do just fine, but store it in a warmer part of your refrigerator as the colder it is, the faster it decays. To freeze it, simply flash-blanch it, trim it, dry it thoroughly on paper towels and store in freezer containers or reusable baggies.